am I an Indie writer?

In his memoir on writing, Stephen King said: “If you wrote something for which someone sent you a check, if you cashed the check and it didn’t bounce, and if you then paid the light bill with the money, I consider you talented.”

Of course, he said this before the days of no-cost self-publishing.

To date I’ve sold 45 copies of my book. I’m pretty sure I could pay the light bill with that. But this does not mean that I’m talented.

While I would love to be respected as a writer, one thing I definitely do not want is to be known as an “Indie” writer. Because while I have met a lot of really cool self-proclaimed Indie writers, there are some habits within the community that I find pretty intolerable.

The first is the complete lack of integrity exhibited by some people. Yes a lot of these people have far more book sales than I do, but that doesn’t mean they’re more talented. Mostly it means they’re better at marketing and networking.

The thing I’ve noticed about a lot of Indie writers is they really band together. They ‘like’ each other’s Facebook pages, they follow each other on Twitter, and they write 5-star reviews on Amazon for each other. Unfortunately, the quality of the writing doesn’t seem to be a factor in any of this. They do this for each other regardless of how good or bad any particular writer is just so they’ll get the favor in return. The worst thing I’ve seen so far is an instance where one writer grumbled about getting a 1-star review on Amazon, so they all banded together and complained until Amazon removed the review.

Yeah, a bunch of Indie writers—who may not have even read the book—used their strength in numbers to shout down the voice of an actual reader.

I think it’s pretty sick, and I don’t really want to be a part of it.

Another thing that annoys me is the inability of some of them to take criticism. I mean, I can understand why they don’t like it when I criticize their lack of integrity, but if someone wants to have any hope of being a successful writer they need to be able to accept criticism on their writing. The way some of these delicate flowers wilt when you try to help them a little with their prose you’d think they’d been physically assaulted by a gang of rabid gorillas.

Which I would totally foot the bill for if someone could find a way to make that happen.

Because while they may have this little incestuous thing going where they ‘like’, buy, promote, and 5-star review each other’s books, in the long run they’re just hurting themselves by putting out poor-quality products with inaccurate and misleading reviews. Most readers are already wary of self-published books, and it’s only going to get worse if this trend continues.

Alright, now that I’ve gotten all that negativity out of the way I do want to say I’ve had a lot of positive experiences with Indie writers. I’ve had people edit my work and give helpful criticism, and I’ve edited stuff for other people as well—which helps me see my own writing through the eyes of an editor. And personally I think this is the best possible way for so-called “Indie” writers to support each other. By giving criticism, by editing, and yes by networking and promoting, but not in an insincere and superficial way. A high-quality book review is an invaluable thing for a novice writer, but it has to be sincere, and most importantly it has to be accurate. I wrote a piece on the importance of a good 4-star review, and I’m already getting some flak from elements in the Indie community.

I do want to be a writer, and I do want people to think of me as a “good” writer, but with the way things are going right now I really don’t want to be considered an “Indie” writer.


girl having sex with elephant

WordPress doesn’t tell me who specifically is visiting my blog, but the stats page does tell me what search engine terms people are using to find it. And the most common one, by far, is some variation of “girl having sex with elephant”.

Seriously. Although once it was “me having sex with elephant”. Maybe that one was the girl all the rest are looking for.

The reason this search query brings people to my blog is because I wrote a post I called the elephant in the room (and me trying to have sex with it), and for the meta tags I used keywords like “elephant sex” and “pachyderms”. Meta tags are how webpages are indexed on the internet, and help match keywords users type into search engines with appropriate webpages. At least, that’s how I think it works. I don’t actually know for sure. What I do know is that if you type girl having sex with elephant into Google without quotes, there’s over five million results. And my blog is the ninth one.

I always figured I’d be noteworthy for something one day. I just never thought it would be elephant sex.

The reason I’m mentioning this now is because as of today, I’ve been on Twitter for a week. And as a result, I really just feel like fucking with people on the internet right now.

I still hate Twitter. Twitter is basically like an unending series of Facebook status updates, except from people I really don’t care about. Oh yeah, and a lot of them are constantly trying to sell me something. “Buy my book!” “Visit my webpage (where you can buy my book)!” “Check out my interview (about my book, which you can buy on my website)!”

You know what? No. Fuck that noise. Yes, I understand that people only have 140 characters to work with, but I hate being told what to do. When I see “Buy my book!” the first thing that pops into my head is “No. Fuck you.” I don’t actually say it, or even type it, but that’s the general response I have to that sort of thing.

That said, I will admit that I’ve connected with some pretty cool people on Twitter.  But these were people who actually started a conversation with me, rather than just trying to sell me something. And yeah, in the case of one guy I did end up buying his book because he just seemed like such a cool person, but he also bought mine and his was 99 cents while mine is $2.99, so I won that round.

I do understand the marketing potential of Twitter. I’ve been posting on this blog once a week for over a year now, and it averages nine unique hits a day. I’m assuming eight of those are my mom clicking obsessively, but still. Yet in just the week that I’ve been on Twitter, I’ve been posting links to my Videlicet Productions blog and it’s now averaging eight unique hits a day, and there’s only like three posts on there. And no elephant sex. So posting links on Twitter really does work.

The thing is, I know exactly what I need to do to really be successful, but I just can’t bring myself to do it. I simply can’t pretend to be interested in other people’s crap that I really don’t care about. So instead I’ve just been having fun with people who share my weird sense of humor. Another author did a ‘flash’ interview of me on Twitter, and it quickly went horribly, horribly wrong. I also co-founded TweetCliffNotes, where we write book summaries based on poor recollections of books read 5-10 years ago in 140 characters or less (for example, WAR AND PEACE: “Oh no, the French! Aww crap I’m dead. The other guy gets married.”)

I’ve got a collection of short stories I plan to release early next month, but after seeing all the annoying crap other people do to promote their work, I just can’t bring myself to go that route. In fact, here’s the cover I designed for it:

yeah, this is seriously what I'm going withA lot of people have told me how important it is to have a decent cover, but I honestly think the quality of the cover should reflect the quality of the writing contained within.  And in this case, I think I hit it pretty much right on. But as my writing improves, I plan on having better and better covers for my books.

Obviously by “better” I mean “designed by someone other than me.”

You might be wondering who Sander Crane is. Well, Sander Crane is the pen name of an individual who doesn’t want his real name associated with these stories in any way, and that’s all I can say about that.

So will using this cover hurt my sales? Almost certainly. But it’s more important to me that the quality of the cover reflect the quality of the stories, so I’m going to go ahead and roll with it. But I am thinking my next project will be SmallGalaxy.

SmallGalaxy is the story of a football-size spaceship crewed by sentient cockroaches (which makes a lot of sense, if you stop and think about it), and I guarantee you it’s the greatest story about cockroaches ever. I say this with a pretty high degree of confidence considering my biggest competition is the delightful 1996 film Joe’s Apartment. I think it would be funny to write it, have a fantastic cover designed, get everyone on Twitter to ‘like’ it on Facebook and write 5-star reviews on Amazon, until the inevitable day that someone actually reads it and goes, “Wait a minute, this story is about cockroaches??!! Plus it really sucks.”

And then they will know how I feel.


I came to Australia specifically to focus on writing, but I didn’t count on how freaking expensive it is to live here. And while I do have enough money to live, I don’t really have enough to have much fun.

So I applied for a job as a Medical Scientist in Biochemistry at a hospital in a suburb of Melbourne called West Footscray. And as luck would have it, I managed to find a place to live in West Footscray as well, not too far from the hospital. And yeah, the job would definitely take time away from my writing, but it ends in early September and would also give me a little extra money so I could afford to actually go out and do stuff, which would be nice.

Well, I didn’t get the job. Which means I moved out to West Footscray for absolutely no reason. But hey, at least the rent is cheap and my housemates are really, really cool. So it’s not all bad.

Also, I did get offered another job.

Back in China.

Yeah, I ended up mentioning to my old boss that I didn’t get the postdoc I’d originally applied for in Australia, so he talked to our collaborator from my most recent research project and they somehow arranged it in a way I don’t fully understand for me to have a job as a Research Scientist at Beijing Normal University.

Which would mark the first time in quite a while that the word “normal” would be associated with me in any way, but regardless it was pretty flattering. I asked if I could start in November at the earliest, since my parents have already booked their non-refundable tickets to come visit me over here from late September to late October, and they said that shouldn’t be a problem.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot, and no matter how I look at it I really don’t see what else I can do. If I get a job here in Australia, it defeats the whole purpose of coming here. But if I don’t work at all, I won’t be able to afford to have any fun, and I’ll be flat broke by the time I leave. If I must get a job, I’d rather do it in China, where I’ll be pretty much guaranteed to get more papers, and since they’re doubling my salary I’ll have plenty of money to have fun in Beijing. Plus I’ll be living downtown, which means I wouldn’t have to spend an hour standing on a subway to get anywhere interesting.

So now I have five months to become a commercially successful writer. Is this possible? Theoretically, yes. In his book on how he sold a million ebooks in five months, appropriately entitled How I sold a Million Ebooks in Five Months, John Locke explains how to, well, sell a million ebooks in five months.

Now that’s good advertizing right there.

A large part of his foolproof marketing scheme involves Twitter. I fucking hate Twitter. But I like money, so I signed up. It was just as bad as I expected. I started “following” other writers, which is like stalking but way less interesting, and I was immediately put off by all the blatant and incredibly lame self-promotion a lot of them were doing. (This is not, by the way, what John Locke encourages people to do.)

I quickly found that I could not take any of it seriously. Yes I want to sell my stories and make my living as a writer, but I just can’t bring myself to do a lot of the bullshit things people on Twitter are doing to promote their books.

And I don’t know why I’m doing this exactly, but more and more I’m finding my efforts turning into a parody of all the advice I’ve gotten so far. I honestly can’t bring myself to take it seriously, but it’s actually kind of fun to not take it seriously. I created a new blog (I now have four in total) to promote my writing and editing efforts, and I’m going to stick with Twitter because I actually have met some cool aspiring authors on there and if nothing else I got to fulfill my lifelong dream of using the phrase “penis goes there” in casual conversation, but I just can’t bring myself to be pushy or insincere.

But I do have a request to make of everyone reading this: if you have the time and inclination, go ahead and post random, funny, inappropriate, relevant, irrelevant, or meaningless comments on my other blog. The funnier or more random the better.

I do have my priorities, and it’s more important to me to have fun and (hopefully) entertain other people as well than to sell books at any cost.

Just in case you missed it, the link to my other blog is here:

living with hippies

I thought I wouldn’t have a problem living with hippies. I was wrong about that.

I only moved in with them out of desperation. Trying to find a long-term place to live in Australia while I was still in China proved to be almost impossible, and in the end the only thing I was able to get was a one-month stay where I was taking the room of a guy who was going on vacation. And I only got it by lying.

We had a house interview over Skype, and one of the questions the girl asked me, in her perky Australian accent, was “What’s your favorite vegetarian meal to cook?” I told her it was eggplant risotto.

That was a lie. I’ve never cooked eggplant risotto in my life. In fact, I’ve never cooked anything with eggplant in it. I don’t even like eggplant. But I figured since I’ve never cooked any vegetarian meal in my life, my ‘favorite’ one was kind of an arbitrary distinction.

Still, I just sort of assumed I’d adapt and get into the swing of things once I moved in. I didn’t. Yes, I understand the concept of communal living, but I just couldn’t seem to get the hang of it. I always felt guilty when I was digging into food that I didn’t buy, and they often wouldn’t eat the food I bought because it wasn’t organic enough, or something.

There was one point where we all went to this big outdoor market to buy fresh produce and whatnot. I figured I’d buy some milk and eggs and other staple foods that someone besides me was likely to eat, and my housemate helpfully pointed out where the eggs were. Sure enough, there were stacked cartons of free-range, organic, carefree-chickens-who-live-full-happy-lives, eggs.

For $12 a carton.

Fuck that. I mean, I don’t want chickens to suffer unnecessarily (as much as they’re capable of ‘suffering’ with a brain the size of a raisin), but I’m not paying $12 for eggs. And that’s Australian dollars too, which is like….something more than $12… American money. For that much the chickens should be coming to my house and clucking out the national anthem while laying the eggs directly into the frying pan and then turning around and picking out the eggshells with their beaks.

Which, to be fair, would be pretty awesome. Hell I’d even pay as much as $13 for that.

Seriously though, we had a party my first Friday in Melbourne, and my housemate made vegetarian Mexican food. Which was pretty good for the most part, but it seemed like every hippy had some kind of food allergy or aversion. So we had to have regular and rennin-free cheese, regular and gluten-free tortillas, guacamole with and without garlic and onions, and so on. And the funniest part? At one point they started talking about how when they went on vacation and could no longer force everyone to cater to their whims, their allergies ‘mysteriously disappeared’.

And that, pretty much, is why I hate hippies.

Well, maybe ‘hate’ is too strong a word. And my housemates were both really, really cool. Both continued to share their food with me even though I never cooked (well, I cooked once, risotto sans eggplant), and I tried to do the dishes as much as possible to make up for it. Still, despite my efforts it was pretty obvious I didn’t fit in with the dynamic of the house at all.

Thankfully, I moved to a new place. I’m now living with Indian guys, and it’s fucking awesome. I get along with them really well, I can buy whatever food I want and not worry about it, and I don’t feel like I have to ‘fit in’ with their lifestyle or anything. One of the guys cooked dinner for me—a wonderful chicken curry—so I’m going to cook Mexican food for him one of these nights. And the thing is, it’s cool because I actually want to do it, rather than feeling like I’m obligated to do it because I’m living in a hippy house.

Plus it was like $585 a month. Here it’s only $300. That’s like $285 more of beer money per month!


A few nights ago I watched the original Star Wars with my housemates. I’ve seen it dozens of times, but it never seems to get old. Hell, I could probably go watch it again right now and still enjoy it.

… …

Ok I’m back. Yeah, I still enjoyed it. It’s just that great of a movie. But really, why is it such a great movie? Even if you don’t like it personally, you have to acknowledge that it spawned one of the most popular and well-loved franchises ever. But what is it exactly that makes it so great?

It all started with a man with a vision. That man was George Lucas, and the vision was, well, pretty dumb. At least at first. Yeah, originally it was called “The Journal of the Whills”, the Force was a giant crystal, and Han Solo was a green-skinned creature with no nose and gills. But fortunately for us there were plenty of people who told Lucas that he had some good ideas but the overall product was too complicated, too hard to understand, and kind of stupid.

Lucas had to listen to these people if he wanted to have any hope of getting his movie made. So he made changes based on the advice he got from friends and colleagues, and the result was the series that we all now know and love.

Well, I love it anyway. I’m sure there’s people out there who don’t enjoy it, but they’re probably all just jerks or something.

Now imagine if Lucas had ignored his friends and just self-published “The Journal of the Whills” as a story. It’s quite possible that no one today would know anything about Jedi, the Force, Darth Vader, Luke Skywalker, or Boba Fett.

And that would be a real shame.

Some would argue that this would be a small price to pay if it meant the world was spared from the presence of Jar Jar Binks–and they’d have a fair point–but that in itself is another lesson. Because with the original trilogy (episodes IV-VI), Lucas listened to the people around him and the effort was more of a collaboration than the vision of a single individual, but with the prequel trilogy (episodes I-III) Lucas had complete control. And the general consensus is that the original trilogy is great, while the prequel trilogy pretty much sucks.

On the other hand, there’s also J.R.R. Tolkien. As far as I know he followed his own vision almost entirely, with very little input from anyone else, and he’s now considered the father of modern fantasy.

The reason I mention all this is that I just really, really love Star Wars and Lord of the Rings. And, well, I do sort of have a vision of my own. I have a lot of ideas on what I want to do and how I want to present the works that I’m writing and editing, but am I like Tolkien and capable of producing something on my own that a lot of people will enjoy, or am I more like Lucas, in the sense that I need a lot of input from others in order for my ideas to be interesting to anyone who isn’t me?

I suspect I’m more like Lucas. Which means that as hard as it is for me to take criticism, I’m going to have to listen to the smart and talented people around me and make changes to my beloved stories based on their suggestions. Because I’d love nothing more than to create popular and timeless characters and worlds for them to inhabit, and if my vision needs a little tweaking from others, so be it. Better that than to create something that’s universally despised–or just not noticed at all.

But I still think a story about a spaceship crewed by sentient cockroaches who save the Earth would be awesome, and I’m not listening to anyone who says otherwise.

Australia so far

My time in Australia has definitely been pretty good so far. Which is not to say that I’ve done a whole lot. Still, the few times I have managed to get out of the house have been pretty interesting.

My first night in Melbourne my housemate took me to a premiere at an art gallery she was involved with. My housemate is a professional puppeteer (how cool is that?) and I’m not sure exactly what her connection to the art gallery was. She may have explained this to me, but I hadn’t slept at all on the flight over from China, so if she did I missed it. Either way, it was cool. Some people standing around and pretentiously critiquing the art, but a lot of other people just enjoying it for what it was.

Also there was free booze. I definitely enjoyed that.

But one of the best things so far is that I just seem to be surrounded by really creative people. My other housemate does computer programming, and if you don’t think that’s a creative endeavor you obviously don’t know too many programmers. My housemate’s girlfriend is a chef—and a damn good one too.

Last night I went with my housemate to a speakeasy. Apparently this is somewhat common in Melbourne where people set up illegal bars in their homes and sell alcohol—mostly to their friends and acquaintances—just for fun and to help pay their rent. Well, the one I went to last night was a little more elaborate than that. It was in a sort of abandoned warehouse where the residents apparently lived in a loft on the second floor, and they had a guy watching the door dressed in a tuxedo who insisted you give him the password “watch under” in order to get in. They had a live band, and most people were dressed in 20’s era clothing. Instead of buying drinks, you could buy an empty shotgun shell for $5 which could be exchanged for a beer, or a clam shell for $7 which could be exchanged for a mixed drink. Or you could just keep the shell, I guess, if you’re really, really weird.

It was pretty cool. The music was great, and I got to meet some of my housemates friends, who are all creative people. One guy I met informed me that he was also in a band. An 8-piece pirate-themed band, to be specific. I asked him what kind of music they play, and he said “drinking music”.


Yeah, apparently if you know where to look you can find really good live music every night of the week in Melbourne. Which means it’s a good thing I don’t know where to look, since everything is so damn expensive here I feel like every time I walk out the door I just start immediately hemorrhaging money.

So aside from the night at the art gallery and the two evenings where I went to speakeasies, what have I been doing with all my time? Honestly, for the most part I’ve just been typing up the journal I wrote by hand from when I was 16 until I was 22. I don’t know if this seems like a stupid use of my time, but I’m doing it for two main reasons: 1) it’s something special to me because it paints a pretty accurate picture of what I was like when I was younger, and if I lose the notebook it’s written in, it’s gone forever, and 2) I’m still trying to figure out what I’m going to do next with my life, and in trying to look forward I think it sort of helps to look back at where I’ve been, and what led me to where I am now.

And it’s pretty funny to read stuff I wrote when I was 16. It’s especially funny to read about how all I wanted to do back then was be a writer. Why didn’t I follow through on that? Well, mostly because I just didn’t believe in myself…

Yeah, it’s cool to see how much I’ve changed over the years, and a little funny and a little sad to see how much I haven’t. I particularly enjoyed this part, which I apparently wrote when I was 18: “Andy, If you’re reading this, never forget how to be happy, how to smile, how to be a goofy idiot.”

I don’t know about the first two, but I definitely got that last one down pretty well.

goals for Australia

Obviously I came to Australia for the sake of having interesting adventures on a new continent, but in addition to that there are some very specific goals I want to accomplish while I’m here. And like so many other times in my life I may have completely unrealistic expectations, so I’m going to go ahead and write my goals out here so people can laugh at me later when I fail to achieve them. Therefore, here are my Critical Awesomeness Goals for Austraila, or CrAwGoaFAus:

Become a better writer. This is the main one. I don’t think any amount of effort could turn me into a truly magnificent writer, but I think if I spend the majority of my time here focusing on improving my writing, I can at least become a respectably competent one. And I won’t say that my goal is to write a bestseller, or even get published, because those are things outside my control. But I can focus on reading at least three or four hours a day, and writing at least 2,000 words a day. Those are things I can control, and both will help me to make my writing as good as it can possibly be, which is all I can really ask for.

Learn to cook. The same goal I had when I went to China. Of course it’s slightly more likely to actually happen here, since at least in Australia I can read the labels on things and I don’t have scary people randomly shouting things I don’t understand at me in the grocery store like I did in Beijing. Plus the girlfriend of one of my housemates is a professional chef, and both my housemates can cook pretty well. I may pick up a thing or two just from proximity.

See as much of Australia as possible. This is going to be harder than I initially thought. Mainly because everything is so expensive here. Well, compared to where I’m coming from, anyway. As always I didn’t quite think my cunning plan all the way through, because while I technically have enough money to live here for a year, I don’t have enough to actually do anything, aside from paying rent and occasionally eating food.

I really should’ve come to Australia first, worked and earned money here, and then gone to China. Trying to earn money in China in order to live without working in Australia was just, well, kinda dumb.

Figure out relationship stuff. While I’ve made some fantastic and wonderful friends over the years, I haven’t had a good romantic relationship since 2002. And in a lot of ways that’s actually kind of a good thing for me, since I probably wouldn’t be traveling around the world and having stupid misadventures if I were in a committed relationship. Still, I feel like there are a lot of things I still need to figure out, because it’s unbelievably frustrating when I’m interested in a girl and she sees me as at best a friend, and at worst someone to be manipulated. I’m still not sure exactly what I want (which is another thing I need to figure out) but if nothing else I think I need to get better at making my intentions clear from the start.

Other stuff. Yeah, those are pretty much the main things. I have a lot of other things I want to do, like continue to study Chinese, maybe start studying Spanish again, type up a bunch of stuff I wrote ages ago by hand, maybe self-publish a collection of short stories, learn a programming language, and so on. But these things are secondary. If I accomplish them that’s great, but if not that’s ok too.

Of course, there is one other slightly important goal:

Figure out what I’m going to do next. I’m $80,000 in debt, and I need to start paying on these loans pretty soon. Apparently you can only get an ‘Economic Hardship’ deferment for three consecutive years, and that’s how long it’s been for me. So I need to figure out something. Playtime is almost over. Because yeah, I had this wild idea that somehow I could write a book in less than six months, get an agent, and get a large enough advance from a publisher to at least start to pay down my loans, but when I look at it realistically and objectively, I don’t think it’s very likely that I’ll be able to do this in less than a year. So I need to figure something out.

But not before I learn how to cook. Because you gotta have priorities.

a look back on my time in China

Before I came to China I had already decided that if I really liked it I would stay for two or three years, but even if I hated it I would still stay for at least one year. When I told this to my housemate last week he thought about it for a moment, then asked, “So what does it mean that you stayed for a year and a half?”


No, the fact is, in a lot of ways I’m pretty sad about leaving China. I’ve made a lot of really cool friends here, and I’ve had a really good time. Plus I’ve definitely learned a lot, and not just about computational biochemistry.

I try not to have too many expectations when I go to a new continent, but I definitely have goals. And my goals for China were to write a good scientific paper and have it published in a respectable journal, learn Chinese to a basic conversational level, see as much of China as I could, learn as much as possible about Chinese culture, learn how to cook, finish my book, and date a Chinese girl.

Surprisingly, I succeeded at all but two of those things. Although I’m not entirely sure that I should really be calling my experience with dating a Chinese girl a ‘success’.

The main thing I failed at was learning Chinese. At this moment my Chinese is about as good as my Italian, which means I can insult people, hit on girls, talk a little bit about coffee and food, and generally make an ass out of myself. I have many excuses for why I didn’t learn Chinese, but really it all boils down to one thing: Chinese is fucking hard.

The other thing I failed to do was learn how to cook, but I don’t like cooking anyway so I don’t really care about that.

As far as my successes though, aside from the dating debacle things went better than I could have ever possibly hoped. And hell, even the dating was good in a way, because it really was a profound learning experience.

Ostensibly I came to China to do postdoctoral research in computational biochemistry. That’s what got me the visa, anyway. And although I know I could’ve worked harder, learned more, and done a better job, I’m still pretty happy about how things worked out. I wrote a book chapter on drug design, a paper on selenium-modified DNA, and I helped a friend of mine get his paper published. I also gave a series of lectures to my research group on how to give a presentation, how to write a scientific paper, etc. And to be honest, I found that I like explaining things, editing papers, and helping other people a lot more than I like actually doing research.

Might’ve been nice if I’d learned this before spending $60,000 to get a PhD in chemistry, but oh well.

And I know my experience would’ve been a lot worse if it wasn’t for the wonderful people in my research group. From the very beginning my boss was cool, patient, and understanding with me, and he’s always been a pleasure to work for. As far as the other members of my group, one of them became my best friend here and eventually my housemate, and I really hope to keep in touch with all the rest of them as well. They definitely are a great bunch.

And I’m not just saying that because I know some of them read this blog (hi guys).

China is a pretty damn big country, and while I certainly didn’t see all of it, I think I did manage to see a fairly decent portion of it. The Great Wall (twice), the Terra Cotta Army, Inner Mongolia, Hong Kong, and a bunch of other places with names that will be meaningless to almost everyone reading this, but they were pretty damn cool for me to see. What was especially cool was having my parents come visit, and getting to explore China with them. Because it’s highly unlikely they ever would’ve come here if it hadn’t been for me, so they got the opportunity to see some truly incredible things they never would’ve seen otherwise.

Plus they paid for a lot of my stuff too.

Before I left England I had this fantasy that once I got to China I would work during the day, then have the weekends and evenings to work on my writing. But like so many of my fantasies it really did not work out that way. Mostly because research took pretty much all my time and energy, and when I wasn’t working on that I was too exhausted to do anything else.

But finally, in November of last year, in a hotel room in Zhuhai, while smoking cheap cigarettes and drinking cheap liquor, both of which probably have taken a combined ten years off my life (but the shitty years at the end that I don’t want anyway), I managed to finish my book. And if nothing else, it showed me that if I really want to be a writer I’m going to have to make it my primary concern.

Which is why I’m moving to Australia tomorrow to spend a year on nothing but writing.

So yeah, I’m truly grateful for the friends I’ve made and the experiences I’ve had, but I’m ready to move on. Ready for the next misadventure. And although I’m not entirely sure about the wisdom of living my life based on a comic strip about a kid and his stuffed tiger, as I get ready to take off into the unknown…again…I can’t help but think of the last panel of the last strip of that comic.

It’s a magical world….let’s go exploring.

how to self-publish a book

At this point I’ve gone through pretty much the entire process of self-publishing a book—both as an ebook and as a traditional paperback—and I figured I’d share some of my thoughts on the subject, or what I like to call the Critical Awesomeness self-Publishing Pointers You’d Best Observe, Obey, and Know. Or CRAPPYBOOK, for short.

I kill me.

Anyway, moving on…

Write a book. Pretty obvious, but there are some points worth considering. For one thing, a traditionally published first novel by an unknown author should be right around 80,000 words. But for a self-published author it can be as long or short as you want it. Plus, when you don’t have to worry about impressing an agent or publisher you have the complete freedom to be as much of an “artiste” as you wish. You can write something as “unique”, “groundbreaking”, and “exceptional” as your heart desires, and you don’t have to worry about it being shot down by some stupid elitist agent or publisher.

Just don’t be surprised when no one wants to buy it.

Formatting. A traditional manuscript has fairly rigid guidelines you should follow. Double-spaced, 12-point font, 1-inch margins, a specifically formatted cover page, etc. Anne Mini’s Blog Author! Author! gives fantastic advice on formatting a manuscript for submission to a literary agent—and on every other aspect of submission as well, really. AgentQuery also has some good no-nonsense formatting tips.

Surprisingly, writers who plan to self-publish should also follow pretty strict guidelines—and not necessarily the same ones you’d follow if you were planning on submitting your manuscript to an agent. Whether you plan to self-publish your work as and ebook or paperback—or both—it’s best to format it the same way to begin with. Because you may change your mind later, and it’s a huge pain to go back and reformat everything, so you might as well start with a simple and easy-to-convert format from the beginning.

Mark Coker of Smashwords has written an excellent style guide for formatting an ebook. The Word for Kindle Guide is also extremely useful. For the paperback, CreateSpace has excellent resources on their site, and I’d also recommend reading this.

I could write an entire blog post just on formatting, but I’d basically just be taking stuff I learned from the links I just posted and passing it off as my own knowledge. If anyone wants more details on my personal experience just leave a comment and I’ll be happy to respond, but there are far greater experts out there on the internet than I.

Editing. Professional editing is one of the major advantages of going through a traditional publisher, and like it or not the reputation of self-published books is that they’re a mess of poorly-edited nightmare fuel. You can hire a freelance editor even if you self-publish, but is it worth it? If you’re like me, the answer is no. If people are going to assume it’s poorly edited anyway, why bother? But if you are like me, you’re probably not as good of a self-editor as you think you are, so you’re going to need at least five or six anal-retentive friends you can count on to read through your manuscript and check it for mistakes and typos. And even after they’re finished with it there will almost certainly remain grammatical, structural, style, plot, character, and punctuation errors. Such is the nature of self-publishing.

The Cover. Even an ebook needs a cover. If you have access to an artist, utilize them! A self-made, amateurish cover makes potential readers cringe instinctively, and since you’ll be self-marketing as well as self-publishing, you want your cover to look as professional as possible. I designed the cover of my book myself because I wanted to go through every aspect of self-publishing a book on my own for the sake of experience, but I can pretty much guarantee that you will never see another book cover designed by me.

Publish! Well, self-publish, anyway. Once you’ve got your manuscript formatted and edited and your cover is ready to go, it’s time to pick your means of sharing your creativity and awesomeness with the world. Amazon and Smashwords are the big names for ebooks (as far as I know), and Lulu and CreateSpace are the big names for paperbacks (again, as far as I know). I went with both Amazon and Smashwords for the ebook because Amazon is probably the most well-known ebook retailer, but Smashwords “ships” ebooks to Sony, Barnes & Noble, and many other retailers. I went with CreateSpace for the paperback, but I’m thinking about self-publishing a collection of short stories with Lulu, just to see how their services compare.

Both Amazon and Smashwords give you 60-70% of the profits from every sale, which is a damn good deal considering how they basically host and catalogue your books for free. They let you set the price as well. I’ve set mine at $2.99, which means I get about $2.00 for ever sale I make, which is pretty sweet, really.

The deal with paperbacks is slightly less good. Again I get to set the price, but I’m required to set it at above $14.00 just for the publisher to break even. If I set it at $14.99, I make 25 cents per copy. If I set it at $15.99, I make 85 cents. Don’t ask me how that works.

Shameless Self-Promotion. The other big drawback to self-publishing is that you are 100% responsible for getting people to buy your book. Which means you have to be getting your message out there constantly, with Facebook, Twitter, blogging, book bloggers, forums, email signatures, lurking in alleyways, etc.

I…I can’t do this. I just can’t bring myself to go around and tell people that they should buy my crappy book. The other night I went out with a couple of guys I met on the internet (no, it’s not what you’re thinking) and somehow I got on the topic of my book. I explained the premise, and one of the guys said he’d actually be interested in reading it. So I told him I’d email him a PDF copy. I just couldn’t bring myself to say, “Well, you can buy it from Amazon or Smashwords for the low low price of $2.99.” I just couldn’t do it.

Also, I fucking hate twitter.

Okay, I did create a page on Facebook and a blog specifically to promote the book, but I only did so as part of the learning process. Or at least that’s what I tell myself so I don’t feel like a filthy, dirty book-whore. But the fact is, if you want to sell copies of your book, people are going to need to know it exists, and for that you’re going to need an internet presence, and some kind of platform, such as a blog or webpage. And that sucks if you’re like me and aren’t too fond of shameless self-promotion, but that’s just the way it is.

Book Bloggers. Book bloggers are, as the name implies, bloggers who read books and then blog about them. This is great for a self-publisher, as the New York Times isn’t exactly going to be reviewing your unedited self-published masterpiece any time soon. Surprisingly, positive reviews from book bloggers actually can skyrocket you to fame and fortune. That’s how Amanda Hocking did it. Unfortunately, most book bloggers aren’t too keen on reviewing self-published books either because of their reputation for lack of quality. As far as I can tell, the only way around this is to join a lot of reading and writing forums, make personal relationships, and then gently broach the subject. Basically, whore yourself out. Metaphorically.

Or literally, if you think that would work.

Note: DO NOT get your friends to give you 5-star reviews on Amazon. People are catching on to this. When a self-published book has twelve 5-star reviews from people who haven’t reviewed any other book, it’s pretty obvious what’s happening. And this can backfire on you big time. Don’t do this. Trust me.

And yeah, a friend of mine did give me a 5-star review on Amazon, but I didn’t ask him to. But aside from the 5-star part, he actually did do a really good job of describing the book.

And finally….

Write your ass off. Some people seem to think that anyone can bypass the traditional publishing industry and rocket to million-dollar stardom through self-publishing. Hell, a 26-year-old girl did it in a year. Well, apparently these people didn’t read the fine print. If you read Amanda’s own account, she’s been writing for as long as she can remember, and sometimes she writes 9-12 hours a day. And no, she didn’t really just do it all in a year. She took writing classes, she submitted her work to agents, she took the advice agents gave her along with the rejection letters they sent, and she constantly worked to improve her writing ability. She’s also hired professional editors and cover designers. And now, in spite of all her self-publishing success, she’s signing on with a traditional publisher.

So yeah, you can have a lot of fun with self-publishing, but it’s not some kind of magic ticket to success. A lot of people have tried to do exactly what Amanda’s done, and still they toil in obscurity. If there were a single guaranteed route to success, everyone would be taking it. There are a lot of factors you can’t control, and for sure not everyone will succeed.

But if you want to maximize your chances, you have to read a lot, write a lot, edit a lot, and take a lot of criticism.

And you should probably be reading someone else’s blog besides mine.

self-publishing vs traditional publishing

It used to be that self-publishing was the realm of vain, delusional losers who paid large sums of money to have their books printed, only to find that no one wanted to buy a crappy book written by “some guy” or “some girl” that had never passed through the hands of an editor.

But times have changed. Now self-publishing is, well, exactly the same as it was before except these days the author no longer has to pay any of their own money up front. And that is simultaneously a good thing and a bad thing.

Because with self-publishing, you get to have complete creative control over your work. You get to make the decision about the cover, the layout, the format, and most importantly, the content. And you get to control when, where, and how your book gets published. Plus, you get to keep a greater percentage of the profits.

And that’s pretty awesome.

On the down side, quite a lot of people out there simply have zero interest in buying a self-published book. And for good reason. Because when you see a publisher’s logo on a book that’s come out recently, it signifies that the book has gone through an agent, a contact person at a publishing house, and a full-time editor employed by said publishing house. Whereas a self-published book has probably at most gone through the hands of a few of the author’s friends who were too kind or too embarrassed to tell the author that their book sucks. And the few truly exceptional self-published books that are written run the great risk of being drowned beneath the towering waves of all the crappy ones.

My book sucks. I’m fully aware of this. It’s sold a grand total of nine copies so far, and I’m almost positive that every one of those was to someone who knows me personally. But I’m ok with that. This year marks the 50th anniversary of the Peace Corps, and my Peace Corps memoir has exactly 50 chapters. It was a personal goal of mine to have the book published this year, and as it was rejected by every agent I sent it to the only way that was going to happen was if I self-published. So I self-published it. If nothing else, the only way for me to find out what people actually think about it is to put it out there, so I put it out there.

The thing is, it’s exactly the way I want it to be. Typos and all. Because I actually wrote at least half of it while I was still in Africa, and while it could doubtless benefit from the skill and expertise of a professional editor, I can’t help but feel that something valuable would be lost. The rawness, intensity, honesty, and laughable naivety that I put into that first draft as I sat in front of my laptop in Korogwe, Tanzania may not perfectly translate into quality reading, but it reflects a pure, unfiltered distillation of the life of a Peace Corps Volunteer in Africa. And that’s what I was going for.

I’ve already started a new novel. I’ve got the first draft of the prologue, chapter 1, and chapter 2 written so far. And in terms of quality it’s light years ahead of my first book. And I’m going to do everything I can to get it published by a traditional publisher.

Because I always want to be improving myself and my writing. And while I would love to say that I know better than any literary agents or publishers, the amount of books that they’ve sold versus the amount of books I’ve sold pretty much says it all.

In a lot of ways it’s analogous to the movie industry. Blockbuster films are often familiar and formulaic and have big names attached to them because movie producers have a good idea of what’s most likely to sell tickets and want to maximize the chances of a profitable return on their investments. But at the same, they’re reluctant to take any really big risks. Independent films on the other hand are more willing to take chances, and while they do sometimes end up getting it right and produce something truly moving, brilliant, groundbreaking, and awe-inspiring, more often than not they simply suck ass.

So I guess what I’m trying to say is that I’ve written my “Indie” book, and now I’m going to see if I can write a “blockbuster”.

Wish me luck.

Oh, and if you’re interested on reading something more insightful on the topic by someone who actually knows what they’re talking about, check out this post by Stephen Leather.